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Ticks, Lyme, and Permethrin

Given the number of non-hikers that ask me about ticks and Lyme disease, it appears that either the awareness of tick-borne illness or it’s territorial spread are increasing, or both. According to the CDC, cases of Lyme disease are concentrated in the United States, with northern California. Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Wisconsin accounting for about 90% of all cases. Lyme also occurs in other parts of the world, particularly those with large deer populations and grasslands, such as the Scottish Highlands.

Wearing a Head Net on The Long Trail
Wearing a Head Net on The Long Trail

There are lots of excellent sources of information on the web about how to identify ticks, how to remove ticks, how to identify Lyme rashes and other symptoms of Lyme and about it’s treatment. It is important for you to read, learn, practice and implement these techniques.

The axe I want to grind here is on prevention. You can avoid a lot of grief and anxiety by changing your hiking habits and clothing selection.

For example, I was just out in the garage this morning, spraying my hiking clothes with Permethrin, as a deterrent against ticks, black flies and mosquitoes bites. Permethrin is the active ingredient on Insect Shield and Buzz-Off clothing. It is an insecticide that kills bugs that land on clothing treated with it, and not simply a repellent like DEET. I used this same strategy last year, in addition to wearing lightly colored long pants and shirts, and it worked quite well. I was also able to avoid applying DEET to my skin, but for a handful of occasions, all year long.

There was a time in my life when I swore I would avoid wearing long pants while hiking. In truth, wearing long pants and shirts in summer and high heat, does take some getting used to, but on the whole it is worth it. I’m a convert.

There are other preventive things you can do to reduce your exposure to ticks like wearing a hat, staying out of long grass, staying on cleared paths and trails, and tucking your pants into your socks. If you hike with a pet, it is also important to defend them against contracting Lyme or acting as a carrier of ticks into your home. Check with your vet to see what tick control products or collars they recommend.

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38 comments

  1. It seems that in MD, I have seen a lot more ticks then I have in the past few years. Maybe there on the up swing with all the extra rain we have been getting this spring.

  2. My dog was just treated for Lymes. 1 in 10 dogs is positive here in northern NH. I've seen more ticks this year also. I complained about the price of the flea/tick drops you need to get from the vet, but the price is less than the stress of the disease and the physical damage it causes.

  3. I've had 3 deer tick bites in the last 3 years, and all of them came from my own yard near Gettysburg, PA. I sought immediate treatment with antibiotics each time–the first bite had the classic bull's eye rash and the subsequent ones were "merely" swollen and painful. I'm looking into treating clothing for daily wear!

  4. Is Permethrin not harmful to human beings? It is right that prevention is better than cure.

  5. I haven't had any issues with it and this is the second year that I'm spraying it on my clothes. It bonds to the fabric and doesn't rub off onto your skin. This is the same stuff that Ex Officio uses on their Buzz-off and Insect Shield line of clothing. The only differences is that you spray it on yourself and that it washes out after 6 washings. It's a lot cheaper if you do-it-yourself.

  6. Do you spray your whole shirt and pants or just near the cuffs and sleeves? Do you spray hats and socks? Where can I buy permethrin? I'm new to the east, (I went 20 years in Colorado before I saw a tick), and I'm paranoid about Lyme's Disease. Maybe you could do another post about prevention tips. Thanks again for the great blog.

  7. I got Lyme disease in Florida, so you can get it anywhere. You won't necessarily get a rash either. I've changed my habits since. Ticks crawl up so couple of sprays of permethrin on your boots and calves keep off most of the ticks for a few hours, just remember to reapply. Now I always tuck my pants into my boots. If you're wading through high grass tuck in your shirt and they won't be able to get at you. I got my bite from a tick that was on a shirt I had put inside an open bag while I was picking blackberries. Don't trust anything you put down till you check it out thoroughly.

  8. I have a friend who contracted Lyme while in the Army. He's a shell of what he used to be and is allergic to everything. It's serious stuff.

    Three and a half years ago, I took my then four year old grandson backpacking in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma. Once, when we sat on a rock, I noticed movement, and then realized the rock was covered with ticks. I had to check us often and pulled a few off. After that, I treated all my clothes with Permethrin and new hiking clothing is purchased with it already applied, if available. I haven't backpacked there during peak grandpa season since but I haven't had any real problems since then on my other trips.

    I bought my Permethrin at Home Depot. I just checked labels and found the strongest concentration I could and diluted it to the percentage necessary.

    I can't stand DEET on my skin and use Picaridin instead for topical use.

  9. Lyme disease isn't necessarily all that bad if you catch it early and you started out healthy. You typically take a month's course of antibiotics and it goes away. For me it meant a couple months of headaches, neck aches, nerve pain in my chest, and lots of fatigue but 3 weeks after the initial diagnosis (2 months after the bite) I was hiking again with no problems and I'm no worse for wear now. There is a lot of scary stuff about Lyme disease on the internet. If you're concerned, talk to a doctor to get the real story. It can be serious for certain people but It's not necessarily a life changing experience.

  10. I second the notion of prevention. I am sick and tired of stupid advice like how to check for ticks and remove them, c’mon people. Ticks will go for the warm areas, that’s your armpits, your croch, your head…how effective are you going to be trying to find a tick in your croch at 9pm after a 23 mile day – not very effective.

    Prevention is the key, spraying your shoes, socks, gaiters, clothing with Permethrin. My father had Lyme for 10 years before kicking it, he tested negative 4 times, Lyme is hard to be detected and is now diagnosed by symptoms, his short term memory is shot, it also damaged his hearing as well.

    Prevention!

  11. I love, love, love Permethrin. It’s a pain to apply, but once dry, it’s odorless and harmless to humans and boy, does it work!

  12. After a five mile hike in unseasonably warm weather here in the Shenandoah Valley, I found three deer ticks on me, two of whom were embedded. My Doctor confirmed I had contracted Lyme Disease and I have started on Doxycycline. The Doctor assured me this would cure the infection. We were “bush whacking” several miles to get to a viewpoint.

    Since I started hiking this fall, I have enjoyed following you and other dedicated hikers, but see hardly any postings about ticks and Lyme Disease. Can you discuss this subject (again) on one of your postings? What do section hikers do when they are on the trail multiple days and may be wearing the same clothes, even while sleeping? I found one determine deer tick the following morning AFTER I took a shower! Do any hikers take medication prophylactically after their hike?

    Thank you for your website. I have learned so much and have vicariously enjoyed your outdoor experiences!

    • Sorry to hear about your troubles, but glad you’re getting treated.

      Sadly, hikers don’t want to hear about Lyme disease or how to prevent it. I was giving a talk at REI a few months back and explained to someone what Lyme disease is and why he should wear long pants while hiking. He had no experience, but obviously decided that I was wrong and hell if he was going to hike in anything except shorts! I tried to explain the symptoms and effects of Lyme and where it occurs, but he wasn’t haven’t any of it. Natural selection at work, I guess.

  13. I use 38% permetherin on my pointing dog,but my vet saud it was not effective.
    I have a small munsterlander and the breedersaid to use permetherin
    looking forward to your answer.
    bill perry

  14. Lyme disease is a nasty thing, and will only get worse, as more and more people get it. I got Lyme disease from a tick bite, and when I traveled back to my home state of Florida, doctors were very surprised to see it. I was lucky, and antibiotics got rid of the bulls eye. Unfortunately, my sister got Lyme Disease, and it’s not going away easy. She lives in VA, and is resorting to alternative therapies to help cure it. She’s on a gluten free diet, she’s taking something called MMS and eventually she’ll be doing ultraviolet light theraphy.

  15. What fabrics will the permethrin bond to? I wanted to buy a tall boot for walks with my dog through the high grasses. I was planning to spray the boot but unsure what material I need.

  16. I’m planning my first solo hike for May 2015 and am getting my 4th PICC before end of 2014 to treat a reinfection of Lyme disease, this one is planned for only a 3 month course. I’m new to the site and usually delete my comments before I post them, I’m a bit shy and each of you are so smart about all of these topics so I usually have nothing to offer, but this disease almost killed me and took away my ability to be in the outdoors and if I can help one person prevent it, I’ll get over the shyness (imagined eye-rolls).
    Please take every precaution you can to keep those teeny tiny “mite sized” ticks and the disease they carry off of you, don’t be shy – ask someone to help check you for them, they usually itch a bit where they’re attached and they’re the size of a pin head.Those of us with freckles have a really hard time spotting them because they aren’t those big juicy ones from our childhood. My first experience years ago was a Dr. telling me they were wood mites as he was removing 20+ from under my skin in my knee bends. As far as a bulls eye rash…..it almost never appears. The disease will sideline some folks for the rest of their lives unless you live in an area that has physicians who are educated about it.
    I’ll be taking a filled RX in my first aid kit on the hike in case one latches on, which seems silly to most but it’s a compromise I made with my Dr., who thinks I shouldn’t be hiking at all.
    And Philip…….thanks for this site and thanks for your answers to my many questions. Everyone is wonderful and welcoming and that’s given me the confidence to make the educated decision to hike and talk with my Dr. about preparedness.

    PETE: regarding your sister please email me if you’d like info on my new Lyme Dr., I went from unable to walk without assistance for ages to planning a week long hike thanks to Dr.

  17. I was lucky that I found 3 deer ticks on me the day after a hike and took them to my Doctor who gave me a prescription for doxicycline.
    In addition to spraying my clothes with permethrin, I also carry a small concave shaped mirror to check out places difficult to see when I do overnights. When I return home, I strip in the mud room, wash my clothes and take a shower, checking both before and after with a mirror for any possible deer ticks.
    Since using permethrin I have only found one tick – near my knee – and it was already dead! I don’t wear shorts when hiking.
    Thanks Philip for this site and all that I have learned from you and fellow posters.

  18. Great lyme disease info on UTUBE: Logan McCulloch, 2/14/13

  19. This is scary stuff….. I’m from the UK and will be visiting Washington DC and Virginia in May. I shall be on my own. I will be doing the Skyline Drive during that holiday and I was planning on maybe doing a couple of short hikes that day on a couple of the way-marked short trails that intersect with the Drive. How much risk do I face in that situation, do you think?

    I’m a (reasonably) experienced walker, in UK conditions – cool, often wet, muddy underfoot. I would always wear long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (and have a fleece and waterproof with me as well!), and of course wear boots. I live on the edge of the Peak District National Park if anyone here knows it – that gives an indication of the sort of walking I’m used to.

    I’d welcome any advice anyone can offer. Oh, I ought to say that I wouldn’t recognise a tick if I saw one.

    • You’ll be at high risk, but you’re obviously sensible. Buy some 100% deet and put it on your ankles/calves and other areas of exposed skin. Staying on trails will help and don’t sit down on anything natural, like grass.

    • If you decide to also spray your clothing, it would be wise to do some searches on the various insect repellent products available. DEET is very effective on skin but can damage certain types of plastics, such as spandex, rayon, car interiors, plastic eyeglass frames and lenses, etc.

      • We used Permithrin when in Afghanistan. It works, and, after wearing the treated uniform(s) for many days, I suffered no skin reactions.

  20. Thanks for the comments. I’m actually feeling quite put-off about all this, which is a pity. However, that would restrict my activities too much, I feel. For example, I’m planning to visit at least one Civil War battlefield site (Manassas) and on checking the relevant NPS website I see that they mention the risks of Lyme disease as well.

    So: long trousers, long sleeves, shoes, and tuck trousers into socks. Those I can do. The advice also talks about using sprays – DEET on exposed skin, and permethrin (?) on clothing. When can I get those? – they’re generally not available in the UK, and in any case I would then have to convey them in my baggage on an international flight to Dulles. Better to buy in the US, I would have thought; but where? Might they be available in the National Parks? Or would it be best to get them in DC first?

    • You can pick up deet at any grocery or drug store. It’s widely available.

    • I replied earlier about using Permethrin, which is readily available in the US. You might consider purchasing already treated clothing. ExOfficio has a line of treated clothing good for up yo 70 washings. Try Sierratradingpost.com. They carry shirts, pants, and even socks which are labeled with Insect Shield. Have a great trip here in the US.

      • Thanks to everyone. Since starting this investigation I’ve found that my preferred outdoor clothing manufacturer, Rohan, actually makes a range of clothing that is insects repellent; and a question to them revealed that the active ingredient is Permethrin. I’ve never seen Permethrin itself on sale in shops in the UK, though I see that it available on-line.

        I’ve checked the US clothing brands that feature insect-repellent clothing, but for those items delivery can only be to US addresses so perhaps there are packaging & labelling issues when sending permethrin-impregnated items across borders.

        So I’ve decided that a) I will visit the sites I want to visit; b) I will probably buy a shirt and trousers from Rohan that are Permethrin-impregnated, and wear them just for the relevant days; c) I will check myself as best I’m able to at the end of those days, and look out for symptoms subsequently; and d) I will take a view about using DEET as well when I’m in the US.

        Once again, thanks for the comments and advice.

      • Thanks for the update Tom. It always amazes me when people ignore the signage that the park and forest service puts out about tick borne illness, especially in the areas you were visiting, and how they walk about in short pants oblivious to the danger. Whatever. Natural selection at work, I guess.

  21. I have relatives who are squeamish about using DEET on their skin, however, my dermatologist informed me that it is imperative to wear DEET, even if it is 100%, especially if you do not have the benefit of permethrin-impregnated clothing. This is because Lyme disease can affect your brain and nervous system severely. Lyme disease is spreading rapidly and is considered an epidemic in the Northeastern U.S. You can protect yourself, as others have suggested, by buying it in spray form, typically on Amazon or from almost any good outdoor sports store in the U.S. I attended a “tick talk” for seniors in my town here in Massachusetts and half the people in the room of about 60 attendees had contracted it. Even if you go on antibiotics, you can get it again. The nurse epidemiologist at the talk said that it is also prevalent in Northern Europe, and personally, 25 years ago one of my University of NH students had contracted Lyme disease while hiking in Switzerland. People wear “Buzz-Off” or “Insect Shield” permethrin infused commercial clothing even while gardening, with their pants tucked inside their socks, Lyme disease is so prevalent. I know people who spray Premethrin on their boots as well as their tents and hammocks. So, a word to the wise: use both DEET and permethrin. You do not want a nasty brain disease.

    • I have different sneakers and a boot I use for walking/hiking. Do you respray each boot and sneaker every 2 weeks? Also if socks are sprayed how many washes will permethrin last before you need to respray socks?

  22. I just thought I’d come back and say that I am back from my US holiday and had a great time. I did the two hikes I wanted to do from the Skyline Drive, and spent a couple of hours wandering the Manassas Battlefield site – about an hour in a guided tour, another hour on my own. I wore the Rohan permethrin-impregnated clothes I mentioned, and I seem to be OK (it’s now over a week since I did these).

    Most people at the relevant locations seems to be very skimpily dressed – both were pretty hot days – and at times I did feel overdressed, but on the other hand I also felt reassured that I had taken reasonable precautions. And of course I now have the clothing which I will use on any future trip into tick territory.

    • People take preventive measures against malaria when they visit Africa.Ticks have altered the US east coast landscape forever and people need to wise up about Lyme.

      Glad you had a nice trip.

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